Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons

Kenji Misumi's fourth and final contribution to Toho's assassin and child series oozes confidence, functioning both as a statement regarding the nihilism at the core of chanbara cinema and an entertaining fight-film besides. It's also, thanks to cinematographer Fujio Morita and a seething, summertime Japan, absolutely beautiful.

Unlike Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril director Buichi Saito, Misumi isn't particularly worried about clarifying the threads that surround Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro. So while Baby Cart in Peril featured an intermittent narration that contextualised and clarified the social constructs and politics impacting on Itto's mission, Misumi trusts the audience to key into the film's mood instead.

Saito's sop to data gave us a different perspective on Itto, it sold us stakes to better anticipate a reaction. Misumi's approach, by comparison, is more chaotic and disconnected, providing insight into his lead character's emotional outlook. Misumi shows us Itto's emptiness to make the point that perhaps the wronged samurai is not a figure that should be depicted as heroic or even particularly engaged. Despite the information and vendettas screaming in at him, Itto's thoughts are permanently elsewhere. He is a monster walking the path to hell, dragging his infant son along with him.

Although Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons is dramatically disjointed, thanks to the series' grab-bag idea of manga adaptation, the constituent parts are united by an overarching thesis - Itto and Daigoro may be perfect and invincible but they are also damned. Neither demonstrates any capacity to develop or change, they are wraiths roaming a milieu that has a need for, and takes a delight in, their ability to kill.

In Land of Demons Itto's quest involves several loyal retainers of a beleaguered clan slowly drip-feeding him information after he bests them in combat. It's a rolling test, designed to ensure that Lone Wolf is as expert as he claims. It's a hook that keeps Itto occupied and fighting but it also tells us something deeper about the kind of clan that, while lousy with ninja and cavalry of their own, require the services of an assassin. Their task is sedition, a violent and outrageous pruning of the clan hierarchy to ensure that a specific status quo endures.

As always with the Lone Wolf and Cub series, the futility of the individual in the face of the Tokugawa shogunate is important to how the story unfolds. The clan members themselves go with the flow, they see their own lives as transitory, they are currency to be invested in a legacy that they hope will span centuries. This macro-thinking is contrasted by Itto's stubborn refusal to consider anything other than the path. He doesn't fret about Daigoro's place in a world beyond their revenge either, the father doesn't even tremble when his son receives a public flogging for refusing to betray a pickpocket. For all intents and purposes, the duo are already dead.

What remains of the Ogami family isn't trying to regain its place amongst the ruling class, they're feeding off the regime's secrets and hypocrisy to fuel their own desires. Misumi uses space and landscape photography to stress the wonderful, pig-headed absurdity inherent to Itto's mission. The scale of the undertaking is baffling. An entire country pivots and thrives on the film's periphery, Misumi filling the frame with picturesque depictions of vast, unyielding nature. Japan is depicted as well-watered and overripe; a great, pregnant beast bursting at its seams. It's an incredible backdrop for Tomisaburo Wakayama's star turn as death incarnate.

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